RESEARCH FOR WRITERS OF HISTORICAL FICTION, #4

Once you’ve connected with your library and librarian, you can move on to doing some research on-line.

As always, online research comes with a lot of caveats. Most of those run along these lines: People on the internet may have an agenda when they create their material, and thus you need to take everything you read with a grain of salt. 

Since you’re actually curious about research, I probably don’t need to tell you that. It’s not exactly a secret.

Instead, I’ll suggest: Be alert for bias and mistakes, and get as close to source material as you can. 

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So let’s dive in to the INTERNET!

(photo via pixabay)

(photo via pixabay)

Most people will start researching with a search engine. (And I hope to have a guest librarian post about those next week.)

All search engines are not the same, but most people start with Google or Bing, whichever their browser likes better. For me, the results on Google seem a bit cleaner, but your mileage may vary. There are a gazillion search engines out there, and you might chose one that’s more suited to your particular field of interest, but remember: you can spend a million hours opening web-pages and still not find what you’re looking for. 

In addition, I should mention that if you’re working in a non-English language setting, everything becomes even trickier. I did a lot of searches in Portuguese, and found that my lack of fluency in that language meant that it was even harder to sort out the good sites from the junk, so I quickly determined that it wasn’t a good use of my time.  (I’ll get into using foreign languages later, when I talk about Wikipedia.)

So what are some of the gems you can find via search engines? Well, Wikipedia is pretty high in my books (normal caveats apply), but I also like to look for sources that are more academic:
See this search result below?

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Catholicism, Race and Empire: Eugenics in Portugal, 1900-1950 on …

www.jstor.org/stable/10.7829/j.ctt1287c3b

JSTOR

This monograph places the science and ideology of eugenics in early twentieth century Portugal in the context of manifestations in other countries in the same p.

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If I search “1900 Portugal” on Google, that appears on the second page. And it’s one of the sources I’d love to read. The source is JSTOR (A digital library founded in 1995. Originally containing digitized back issues of academic journals, it now also includes books and primary sources, and current issues of journals. It provides full text searches of almost 2,000 journals.  Source: Wikipedia)

Because the article is from a journal, you can expect it to be more thoroughly researched than a webpage put together on the topic by a bunch of high school  students as a senior project. So things that are listed as being on JSTOR tend to be more reliable. (Tip: Put JSTOR into your Google search string…such as “1900 Portugal JSTOR”…you actually get different results doing that than you do putting “1900 Portugal” into JSTOR’s search function.)

There are also other aggregators of more academic materials, among them ACADEMIA.EDU, QUESTIA, and HIGHBEAM.

All of these favor more reliable and scholarly sources, and although some of the articles will be behind a paywall, your friend the Research Librarian might be able to get access to them for you.

And one final thing to keep in mind for all your initial searches: If something was published in the US before 1923, then its copyright has expired and…you can almost always find it free on the internet. JSTOR has all its articles that were published prior to that date free, and you can also check sites that upload a lot of free texts, such as GOOGLEBOOKS and PROJECT GUTENBERG (I’ll mention these a lot later.)

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Next Week: (tentative) How to Use Search Engines

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RRH Confession #4

I spent far far too much time haunting search engines looking for the name of a department store in Porto in 1900. I knew there had to be one. The city was 200-400K people. I even tried putting in the Portugese words for Department and Store and searching that way, all to no avail.

As it turned out, a Department Store in Portugal wasn’t called a “Department Store”. Instead the term was “Grandes Armazens”. That translates directly as “Big Warehouses”, which explains why I couldn’t find it.
I later tripped over the department store (Grandes Armazens Herminios) in a rather strange manner, but that’s a story for another day.

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